Panopticism From Jeremy Bentham To Michel Foucault

To exercise its ideology, a totalitarian government needs to utilize different fields of sciences and arts. Architecture is one field that is able to serve the aims of the government. The British utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) offers an example of an institution’s design where all the areas of the institution can be seen from one point, known as the Panopticon. The word primarily referred to an optical device similar to a telescope. The design is that of a prison which comes in a circular shape with an inspection tower at the center. Prisoners are to be watched from the central building, without being able to see who is watching and when are they being watched. Bentham suggests that this design is applicable in other institutions such as schools and hospitals.

The Panopticon today transcends its physical being to be that of a metaphorical one. Without being imprisoned nor being watched from circular surrounding buildings, one feels that he or she is constantly surveyed like a prisoner. Individuals’ awareness of being observed result in conformity; people end up acting and thinking the same way for fear of being caught out or punished. French theorist Michel Foucault insists that the Panopticon continues to emerge, only it is taking different forms. The Panopticon has moved beyond prisons and workplaces, it now encapsulates society as a whole.

In the context of his visit to the estate of Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin in Russia, Bentham developed the concept of the panopticon under the influence of his brother Samuel’s project of a circular factory developed for the Russian prince Potemkin using the idea of the inspection principle as a way to supervise-from a central position – the British workmen who were manifesting little discipline in their supervision of Russian workers in the ship-building plant. Bentham relates this fact in one of his letters:

“It occurred to me, that the plan of a building, largely contrived by my brother, for purposes in some respects similar, and which, under the name of the Inspection House, or the Elaboratory, he is about erecting here, might …be found applicable, without exception, to all establishment whatsoever, in which, whithin a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.” 

In his seminal book The Panopticon Writings, Bentham outlined his model of a panopticon or ‘inspection house’ (Bentham, 33), prisons where the building is circular surrounding a central watchtower or what Bentham calls ‘the inspector’s lodge’, which has multiple windows facing the inner side of the building, which in turn is divided into cells, each having two windows, one at the front of the cell facing the watchtower, the other at the back allowing daylight to penetrate inside the whole cell. Prisoners are kept in separate cells, isolated and thus prevented from all communication with each other, observed by an inspector who occupies the tower in the centre, this latter can see inmates of each cell without himself being seen by them due to the clever design of blinds, prisoners under the impression that there is a potential of them being watched at any moment in time would hence come to modify their behaviour accordingly. As Bentham puts it:

“Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.” 

In his article Surveillance, Panopticism and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age, Ivan Manokha evokes the idea that Bentham’s panopticon encompasses three main assumptions, the first being the omnipresence of the inspector, due to his complete invisibility from where he derives all his power over the prisoners; the second being the universal visibility of those under surveillance; and the third being the belief of ceaseless observation by the watched. Manokha further highlights that for Bentham, the Panopticon plainly involves two sides of power, the ‘power over’, and the power exercised over oneself. The ‘power over’ resides in the ability to spatially categorise and isolate inmates, the ability to observe, punish and discipline those who, with their conduct, violate rules they should abide by. The power exercised over oneself, on the other hand, is manifested through self-restraint and self-discipline due to the assumption of being under constant surveillance, consequently coercion becomes only necessary in some scarce cases of disobedience. As accentuated by Johnson and Regan (2014) “this effect” they remark “is precisely what Bentham believed the panoptic prison would produce. Seeing the guard tower or believing the guards were watching, inmates would adjust their behavior to conform to the norms they expected the guards to enforce” (qtd in, Manokha 222).

Anyone who gets familiar with basic information about Bentham’s Panopticon soon realises that this model of punishment is cost-efficient. It is with limited investment that this model seeks to both reform convicted criminals and prevent others from committing further crimes, and that only requires an architectural setting where a ‘human gaze’ reigns, as said by Bentham: “Preach to the eye, if you would preach with efficacy. By that organ, through the medium of the imagination, the judgment of the bulk of mankind may be led and moulded almost at pleasure. As puppets in the hand of the showman, so would men be in the hand of the legislator” (qtd in, Manokha 224).

The cost-efficiency of the panopticon model in architecture, and the easiness with which it compels its subjects to act accordingly, renders this model serviceable not only for prisons where punishment is compulsory but in different kinds of institutions where obedience is required such as schools, factories, hospitals...etc. Bentham suggests that regardless of the purpose, this model “will be found applicable” to all establishments. He goes on to say:

“No matter how different, or even opposite the purpose: whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education: in a word, whether it be applied to the purposes of perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools.”

Bentham’s aspired for the panopticon model to take hold of not only prisons but different institutions of society and be adopted by them, nevertheless the panopticon remained a sheer conception during his lifetime, as Foucault argues, though the panopticon may not have been essentially implemented in the way Bentham originally proposed, it has subtly permeated society, he insists that the panopticon should not be understood as a mere dream building, it is rather “the diagram of a mechanism of power in its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” 

The French theorist Michel Foucault (1926-1984), often described as the most important philosopher of the second half of the Twentieth Century, offers in his influential book Discipline and Punish an interpretation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon from where he draws his theory on panoptic power. Foucault lays out in his book the ways in which discipline is implemented and has been implemented in the previous centuries. He writes on controlling population and workforces and on normalizing things to make people more docile through the channel of a disciplinary apparatus.

Discipline and Punish offers a genealogical study of the history of punishment. Medieval punishments characteristically took place in public settings involving ghastly spectacles of physical torture as a way to remind the populace of the ability of the official power to inflict its will on the bodies of the convicts, it is according to Foucault a physical manifestation of the power of the monarch reproducing the crime on the visible body of the criminal, Foucault elaborates that: “The public execution…deploys before all eyes an invincible force. Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.” However, in modern times things have taken a different state of affairs, Foucault notes that in modern times public executions became intolerable, as there was a need for another form of punishment, putting it plainly using Foucault’s words: “Another form of punishment was needed: the physical confrontation between the sovereign and the condemned man must end; this hand-to-hand fight between the vengeance of the prince and the contained anger of the people, through the mediation of the victim and the executioner, must be concluded.” Thus official power has focused less on the bodies of its subjects and more on their minds, it focused more on manipulating and administering these subjects than on taking away their lives through public executions where punishment was “thought to be equal, if not to exceed, in savagery the crime itself” (Foucault, 9). The replacing form of punishment will therefore tend to become the most hidden part of the penal system, leaving the domain of relatively everyday perception only to enter that of abstract consciousness, its effectiveness is perceived as a result of its inevitability rather than its visible intensity; crime is discouraged not because of the appalling spectacle of public punishment but because of the certainty of being punished. 

Foucault’s concern with discipline and surveillance becomes even more pronounced in Discipline and Punish than in his other books. Using the prison as an example, he demonstrates how disciplinary institutions employ different techniques to form “docile bodies” (Foucault, 136).

The prison for Foucault is an essential element in the punitive system that marks a significant moment in the history of penal justice; it intends to render individuals docile and useful. Prisons represent another form of punishment. Far from being an act of revenge as was the case in previous times, this form of punishment which directs the society towards a more civilized humanitarian society, is a kind of rehabilitation. It deprives the individual of his freedom and transforms him in a particular way so that his mind would change from irrationally breaking the law to rationally making the law. In regards to this, Foucault contends that: “… penal imprisonment, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, covered both the deprivation of liberty and- the technical transformation of individuals.” 

In order to mold the criminal in a correct way, Foucault believes that austere discipline is crucial, according to his point of view, prisons are like “disciplined barracks” and hence should function like them; where bodies of the prisoners are to be trained properly using timetables as a mode to regulate their behaviour as to when to walk, sleep, rest, and eat…etc. While timetables regulate the lives of the prisoners, they fail to discipline them when left unaided.

To maintain the power and order more efficiently, the prison took the appearance of a panopticon. Inspired by Bentham’s architectural model of a panoptic prison, Foucault extracts his theory on panoptic power which he considers an emblem of the modern power since it is manifested in ways that are less overt, with no external force or explicit method of disciplinary power being necessary.

The panopticon becomes then the architectural figure of the disciplinary mechanisms of regulation, surveillance, supervision, and ostracism which surround the subjected body. It creates and sustains a power relation detached from the person who exercises it. From the inspection tower of the panopticon, convicts are observed and created into objects of examination and experimentation, with a power imperceptible to them and thus robbed of its identity. It is as though “The body of the king…is at the opposite extreme of this new physics of power represented by panopticism.” 

The panopticon is ‘a privileged place for experiments on men’ where the subject ‘becomes the principle of his own subjection’ (Foucault 203-204). Foucault mostly focused on the panopticon as a dispositif that involves the exercise of power as a repression, but he also clearly considered that the power over oneself was equally operating in the panopticon. He claims that the major effect of the panopticon is to stimulate in the inmate a state of cognisant and enduring visibility that guarantees the automatic functioning of power due to the permanent effect of surveillance that is not necessarily continuous in its action. According to Foucault this architectural apparatus should be a machine for “creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.” 

The property of surveillance thus augments Foucault’s theorization of discipline, in that:

Disciplinary power … is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. 

The individual, being subjected to a field of visibility and having awareness of it, assumes responsibility for the restraints of power and makes them impulsively play upon himself, he becomes the principle of his own subjection and inscribes in himself the power relation in which he plays both roles at the same time. It is then, no longer necessary to use force to oblige the convict to good behaviour, or the madman to calm, to induce the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, or the patient to the observation of the regulations. 

Foucault establishes the roles within the panopticon as the visible and the unverifiable, corroborating: “Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so” (Foucault 198). The inmate is seen but he does not see; far from being a subject in communication, he is the object of information. His room is arranged so that it faces the central tower and thus imposes on him an axial visibility. The separated cells imply a lateral invisibility which in its turn guarantees order by eliminating all kind of contact between inmates and thus reducing chances of any possible dangers of plotting a collective escape or rebellion. The benefits of separating individuals does not confine only to prison convicts, as Foucault elucidates:

“If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents.”

The spatial unities arranged by the panoptic mechanism, making it possible to see constantly and recognize immediately, are as Foucault suggests, essential to the success of the panopticon. This property reverses the principle of the dungeon; or most accurately of its three functions- to enclose, to deprive of the light and to hide – preserving only the first and eliminating the two others. Full lighting accompanied by the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, and hiding is replaced by the trap of visibility. 

Foucault states that the fact that the panoptic institutions could be so light was surprising to Bentham; In the absence of bars, chains, heavy locks, all that was needed was the clear separations and the well-arranged openings. 

To both Bentham and Foucault, the extension of the panoptic model to the rest of society is an appealing idea, they both spoke of other institutions in which this model could be made operational. As Foucault puts forward: “But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building… It is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” The Panopticon does not only serve to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work. Foucault goes on to explain:

It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization, of disposition of centres and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, prisons. Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used.” 

This panoptic schema enables any apparatus of power to be more intense, it assures both its economy and its efficacy, it was destined to spread throughout the social body without losing any of its properties, it perfects the exercise of power in numerous ways; as it reduces the number of those who exercise it, while it increases the number on whom it is exercised, it also makes it possible to intervene at any given moment, and it allows the constant pressure to act even before the offences, its exercise is quiet and spontaneous, the effects of the mechanism of which it constitutes follow from one another. Other than architecture and geometry, it acts without any physical instrument directly on individuals; it gives ‘power of mind over mind’.

The Panoptic mechanism is indeed an efficient way of operating the power, the reason behind which institutions modeled on panopticon began to spread throughout the society. In his argument about the spread of panopticism in the modern society, Foucault does not fail to highlight the importance of ‘experts’ who emerge in parallel with different panoptic institutions and create ‘truths’ about ‘normality’ and ‘deviance’: “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements.” Individuals without any coercion practiced on them, end up exercising self-discipline and self-restraint to be in conformity with the norm and to meet the perceived expectations of the watchers.

It comes as no surprise that the Panopticon may provide an apparatus for supervising its own mechanisms. The director may spy on all the employees under his orders from the central tower. Whether they are nurses, doctors, foremen, teachers or warders, he has the ability to judge them continuously, to modify their behaviour, and to impose upon them the methods he thinks most suitable, and yet there might be a possibility for the director himself to be observed.

Panopticism is considered by Foucault to be a discipline image, its discipline-mechanism is a functional mechanism that seeks to improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid and more effective, its design is of a subtle coercion for a society to come. It represents the movement from one project to the other, a movement from a schema of exceptional discipline to one of a generalized surveillance, smoothing the way to the formation of what might be called in general the disciplinary society. 

09 March 2021
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